Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas: Setting the New Performance Standard

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas are among the most famous works of chamber music history and represent, together with Mozart’s works for this instrument duo, the core of violin repertoire from the Viennese Classicist period.

Though composed in a short span in Beethoven’s creative life (nine of the ten were written between 1798 and 1803, with the final one appearing in 1812), these sonatas bear all the marks of Beethoven’s compositional innovation: the breaking of formal tradition, a vast emotional scope, skillful musical manipulation, and, of course, the trademark urgency and power.

The new Bärenreiter edition of the violin sonatas — or, as more appropriately titled by Beethoven himself, sonatas for the pianoforte and violin — offers a revolutionary editorial approach to the music that does more than simply hand down the text.

These new volumes, edited by historical performing practice expert Dr. Clive Brown, present an approach to performance that is quite different from what most of today’s musicians are accustomed to. This approach not only falls much more in line with what Beethoven would have expected, but also imbues the music with a renewed vigor and offers musicians an incredible array of opportunities for creativity.

“This is the highest quality of academic scholarship, but it is not only that: this edition has enabled me to bring these sonatas to life in a way that has not been possible before – this is historical research in the service of living and breathing music!”

Viktoria Mullova, Violinist

Here violinist Viktoria Mullova and pianist Alasdair Beatson demonstrate some of their most illuminating discoveries from the “Spring” Sonata (Op. 24) and show us why they’re excited to work with these new editions:

The Editorial Approach

Dr. Brown’s new editions of the Beethoven violin sonatas combine a traditional scholarly Urtext approach with a wealth of information on historical performing practice informed by the thorough study of recordings and editions made by 19th-century musicians, many of whom had direct contact with Beethoven himself or with others that did.

These historical sources reveal a striking discrepancy between performance and notation. Composers in Beethoven’s era, including Beethoven himself, simply did not write down a large swath of the expressive gestures that they would have expected musicians to make, including rhythmic and tempo flexibility, piano arpeggiation and asynchrony, portamento, cadenzas, and ornamental, rather than continuous, vibrato effects.

By not including these details in the text, composers created a space bursting with potential for the creative performer to exploit in what could and, most importantly, would be wildly distinctive and thrillingly emotional performances. In many respects, it was a creative freedom much more akin to jazz than to today’s renditions of classical music.

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A Short Foray into Beethoven’s Variations

Guest post by Dr. Dominik Rahmer, editor at G. Henle Verlag.

HenleBeethoven250

The formal technique of “variations” played an important role in Beethoven’s work throughout his entire life. Critic Paul Bekker wrote in 1911, “Beethoven begins with variations,” and indeed this is true not only of the character of his oeuvre, but also of its chronological progression: Beethoven’s very first published work was his 9 Variations on a March by Dressler, WoO 63, which appeared in 1782.

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Dressler Variations, WoO 63: Beginning of the Theme

Similarly, we could add that Beethoven also ends with variations. The Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, which are amongst his last piano works, not only crown his creativity, but also, in the history of piano variations, are probably equaled only by Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The panoply of variations within his multi-movement works also indicates how fundamental this technique is in Beethoven’s musical thinking. Consider, for example, the profound closing movement of the last piano sonata, Op. 111, or the grand finale of the 3rd Symphony.

Though the themes of these movements were usually Beethoven’s own inventions, here we will focus on the pieces composed as independent variation sets on popular melodies. This vantage point reveals some interesting finds. more “A Short Foray into Beethoven’s Variations”

Cantabile Qualities: Choral Music by Beethoven

Guest post by Jan Schumacher

Beethoven is not primarily thought of as a vocal composer, but why not? The choral collection compiled by Jan Schumacher, which contains both well-known and unknown choral works by Beethoven and original transcriptions of Beethoven’s works by other composers, reveals a great deal of extremely attractive repertoire.

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Ludwig van Beethoven

The widely-held prejudice that “he could not write for voice” sticks to few composers as much as it does to Ludwig van Beethoven. This may be due to the fact that his place in music history is primarily as a revolutionary symphonist and creator of incomparable chamber music like the string quartets and piano sonatas. To take this to mean that he had no understanding of the human voice or did not know how to write for chorus, however, is to draw the wrong conclusion. Beethoven, like nearly every other composer of his age and indeed until the first half of the 20th century (with a few notable exceptions such as Chopin and Paganini), was equally used to composing for voice and instruments.

It is when we try to label Beethoven that we develop what can be misleading expectations. more “Cantabile Qualities: Choral Music by Beethoven”

Musical Characteristics and Performance Practice of the Classical Period

By Jacy Burroughs

The Classical period of music had its advent in Italian music of the early eighteenth century and extended into the early nineteenth century. Some musicologists mark the end of the Classical period around 1815, at the end of Beethoven’s compositional middle period. However, the Classical period truly overlaps with both the Baroque and Romantic periods. Characteristics of and performance considerations for Classical period music are outlined below.

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